Monday, March 14, 2011

New York Red Bulls 2011 MLS Season Preview

AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

All eyes will be on the New York Red Bulls in 2011. A worst-to-first season in 2010, a great stadium and big name foreign players to go with promising young Americans has everyone talking about the possibilities for this team. But this squad is far from a lock on winning it all.

Consistency has always been an issue for this club. While soccer seems to have more player movement compared to other sports in the country, the Red Bulls—going back to when they were the MetroStars—has had a constantly revolving door of players and coaches.

Born in 1996, current head coach Hans Backe is the twelfth man to lead the club. No coach has lasted more than three seasons, and only two have done that. So while Backe gets another crack at things, assistant coaches Richie Williams—who had been with the team since 2006—and Des McAleenan—the goalkeepers coach since 2002—were fired.

The two have been with the club for long periods of time and have been through it all. Williams, for the past couple of years, has been a hot commodity for a head coaching position in the league. To fire those two only a few weeks before the season begins is a perplexing move and could be indicative of larger issues within the club.

Also not returning is the franchise’s all-time leading goal scorer Juan Pablo Angel. In four seasons with the team he scored 61 goals in all competitions. His contract expired however and the team decided to go in another direction.

As peculiar as it was for the team to so easily get rid of one of its best players ever, there is some consolation in that the expected forward tandem could be the most hyped about duo in the league: Thierry Henry and Juan Agudelo.

Henry was the marquee designated player signing last summer for the Red Bulls. There was a lot of excitement about him coming to MLS after the FIFA World Cup, yet his performance didn’t match it. He scored only two goals in only 11 league games, missing three of the team’s final four games—including the first leg of the playoffs—and coming on as a late-sub in the match that eliminated them from the playoffs.

Henry trained with Arsenal over the winter in order to regain fitness and health. If he can stay healthy, his first full season in the league should be noteworthy.

Agudelo has rocketed to the forefront of the American soccer scene. A rising prospect, Agudelo didn’t actually play in MLS until October, and only played in four games (two regular season and two playoff matches). However, that was enough to make USMNT coach Bob Bradley bring him in for a friendly, in which Agudelo came off the bench and scored the game-winning goal.

With no Angel in New York, Agudelo should get a lot more playing time this season. Also, with no real established forward in the national team pool (with the exception, possibly, of Jozy Altidore) many USA fans will have a close eye on the development of Agudelo.

The team has a similar situation on the backline as well. DP Rafa Marquez will team with 2010 Rookie of the Year candidate and rising national team player Tim Ream.

Marquez brought a lot of presence and patience to the Red Bulls lineup and could be even better moving from defensive midfield to his preferred position of center back. Ream enjoyed a great rookie campaign, showcasing his poise and technical ability on the ball. These two will anchor an otherwise shaky defense.

Left fullback may be the biggest weakness on the club right now. Roy Miller is the incumbent starter, but after a good first half of the season his form dipped drastically towards the end and he was especially rough in the playoffs. If he cannot regain his form, he could very well lose his position to Danleigh Borman.

On the right side, Chris Albright had a solid season but he is 32-years-old with a strong injury history and the club is worried about his durability in the short and long-terms.

The goalie position is still unsettled as well. Last year’s starter Bouna Coundoul had a career year, starting all but three games (which he missed because of national team duty) and setting the franchise record for shutouts (11). However, he sometimes loses focus and makes ridiculous mistakes, and he could be in the dog house for spending January with his national team of Senegal rather than with the Red Bulls.

So Greg Sutton has been seeing a lot of first team action in preseason. He has solid fundamentals, but last time he was the first choice goalkeeper, he had a disastrous season.

Linking the suspect defense with a growing offense is the midfield, a solid group. Joel Lindpere leads the way after having a wonderful season with the team, scoring three times, assisting on a team-best six goals and displaying a tireless work effort. He is joined by Dane Richards, the Jamaican speedster who scored five goals last season (second-best on the team) and seemed to be a revived player with the arrivals of Henry and Marquez.

New to the unit will be international transfers Jan Gunnar Solli and Teemu Tainio. Tainio, a Finish International player, has played at extremely high levels of soccer his entire career, playing for clubs like Auxerre, Tottenham and Ajax.

Solli, a member of the Norway National Team, can play the wing and was very successful at SK Brann. Red Bulls management hopes that these two under-the-radar signings can be just as fruitful as the Lindpere one was last season.

This Red Bulls team is one with a lot of talent, a seemingly high amount of offensive potential and the ability to be one of the best teams in the league.

They will be the favorites to win the East and reach the MLS Cup final.

The franchise, though, has a tough history of not meeting expectations and with some instability, especially in the coaching ranks and on defense, the threat of another lost season still looms over the club.

Hans Backe previews the team's preseason in Mexico. Video from YouTube.

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